x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Eat well, lose weight

Rujuta Diwekar, the Bollywood nutritionist to the stars, roots her programme in Ayurvedic and yogic principles, not simply dieting.

Rujuta Diwekar's book is rooted in Ayurvedic and yogic principles, and traditional Indian food.
Rujuta Diwekar's book is rooted in Ayurvedic and yogic principles, and traditional Indian food.

A small bunch of grapes is thrust at me with a smile. The Bollywood nutritionist to the stars, Rujuta Diwekar, is running a few minutes late for our interview and by way of apology offers me the fruit from an outstretched hand before sliding into a plump sofa and gratefully accepting an ice-cold bottle of water. A cornerstone of her book is that we must all eat more often - panacea to many half-starved dieters whose stubborn extra pounds refuse to budge.

A heavy cardboard box filled with her new book, Don't Lose your Mind, Lose your Weight, is set down behind her with a thud. A Greek salad in a plastic bowl - my hastily ordered lunch - is set down before me. Famished, I nibble at it as slowly as I can, conscious of wolfing my on-the-go food in front of India's self-styled celebrity fitness guru. In Dubai to promote her best-selling new diet book, the 31-year-old author, sports, fitness and nutrition expert is perhaps largely unknown outside India's Bollywood-orbiting media. There, her fame might be compared to that of the trainer Tracy Anderson, whose workouts and eating plans gave Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna their famously toned physiques and Anderson a stellar career path as an A-list fitness expert.

Rujuta's Indian conquest looks set to go global since the February publication of her book - one that has taken India's weight-watching community by storm. "The thing with India is that it is such a land of contrasting realities," explains Diweker. "On the one hand, you have people starving for good nutrition and around the corner are people overeating on junk and processed food. A lot of simple knowledge about food has been forgotten."

The key question is whether her book, which is rooted in Ayurvedic and yogic principles and talks extensively about a typically Indian diet, will translate to a western audience. "Well, it's selling on Amazon and it has received reviews from non-Indian reviewers. Apart from some more obscure Indian dishes which not everyone might know, there is no reason why a western or UAE reader cannot follow the advice in the book."

In India, Diweker has become a go-to source for weight-loss and fitness advice since graduating in sports science and nutrition and taking on some of India's most high-profile stars as her clients. Her training of the Bollywood megastar Kareena Kapoor caused a media furore when the actress revealed a size-zero physique for her latest film, and arguably, her A-list clientele, which includes the actor Saif Ali Khan and the billionaire businessman Anil Ambani, has made Diweker a household name. Diweker is convinced that her health advice is accessible for the average working person in the UAE.

"When Kareena Kapoor did my programme the press went berserk, which was maddening, because she didn't just do it for the association or publicity, she did it because she believes in it and believes in what I talk about. And she found the programme very easy. It has to be simple, do-able and sustainable. If there is one place we need to be simple, it is with food." Espousing a holistic approach that is less about counting calories and more about eating natural nutritious food, Diweker's down-to-earth writing centres around re-establishing a connection with our bodies. She also spends time addressing all-important issues of emotional well-being and physical fitness.

"Fad diets don't work. As the title says, the book is about not losing your mind when it comes to feeding yourself. Instead, it aims to show how to change your own habits. It's not about how much weight you can lose. I think food is beyond a number, whether it's how many calories you've consumed or burned." Instead, Diweker looks at the overall well-being of her client and looks for improvements.

For UAE residents used to an eating-out culture, weight control can be a difficult task to master, especially with so much abundance in our cuisine. Portion control is difficult at best in restaurants and the confusion of a melting pot of global cuisine can result in people choosing food that is unsuitable for their lifestyles and bodies. Diweker says that Indians, who may be physically smaller than average westerners, should eat according to their size - two hands cupped together is a guide for the right meal size for your body.

"Dubai has the best of East and West and people are spoiled for choice, but the portion sizes can be wrong for different people. I've never seen so many different brands of milk, yoghurt or even water in one supermarket. "So it's easy to get confused about food. What's important for the people of the UAE is to eat a little before they go out to a restaurant. I also see people leaving for work and only having a cup of coffee. If they have a morning meeting they might not eat for five hours. That is too long between meals."

Like many nutritionists, Diweker advocates eating more frequently with smaller portions. She suggests having a modest portion up to seven times a day. This avoids hunger pangs that lead to overeating, while stabilising the metabolism. The metabolism, or "digestive fire", is a key part of Diweker's re-education programme and it's interesting for a western reader to see how the eastern approach to diet and wellness differs in its basic philosophy. There is more importance attached to spirituality, for a start. The yogic and Ayurvedic approaches are part and parcel of Diweker's book and of her heritage.

She explains that reigniting the digestive fire, a chakra point at the stomach, is one of the most important things to tackle when addressing weight issues, much more than counting calories. "In yoga there are seven chakras and we believe there is a fire that burns which helps digest food. This fire leads to sharper senses and the brighter it burns the better you digest your food and the better you are able to live your life. It becomes duller when you are not active or when you are not doing things that lead to inner fulfilment. It becomes duller when you're not getting the nourishment you need and when you don't exercise, your posture suffers and the fire is stifled because you don't have the energy to sit up straight."

She tells me about ghee, a traditional Indian kitchen staple, which many younger generations Indians have given up in favour of westernised "low-fat" products. "But then they see their parents and grandparents have lived long lives and aren't overweight, and yet their generation is getting fatter. Food isn't just about the calories, it is about the nutrients and it is about what you do after you have eaten something.

In traditional preparation of ghee, which is also a spiritual process, there are many vitamins, Omega 3 and nutrients which are present, and these are important for the joints and for the spine." Despite Diweker's A-list clientele, she wants not just to transform her wealthy, glamorous clients, but to offer a fresh perspective on how people think about food. Most of us have a hang-up or two about the fridge; either we'll starve ourselves and then take guilty midnight trips (because eating standing up doesn't count), or we'll comfort eat for emotional reasons.

Many of us fail to cook fresh produce at home, preferring the ease of processed foods whose nutrients have been lost in the packaging process. "The act of eating needs to be looked at differently. What I would really like to see is basic education about food and nutrition in schools. If we have fit children we will have fit adults." If this sounds like a Jamie Oliver-style call to change kids' eating habits, Diweker is emphatic that it needs to be done in this region.

"I would never do a one-on-one with a child as it's too traumatic for the child, but I do approach schools and ask them to have regular talks with the kids. A child is dependent on all of us; we need schools, government and parents all working together to improve nutritional education". When I ask her about her own background, she says it was a big influence. "I come from a family that is quite unusual in India. The women all look after themselves physically and are very academic.

"When I started working in 1999, as a personal trainer and nutritionist, I found it quite hard to find my niche initially, because other women in this field were dieticians because they hadn't got enough points for medicine, or they were doing it as stop-gap. The health and nutrition industry in India was still very nascent." Having worked in the industry for 10 years now, Diweker says that things have changed. More people are becoming aware of the need to balance eating patterns and exercise to fit hectic lifestyles. She reminds many of her clients that sleep and rest are just as important.

"A lot of my celebrity clients were already exercising but I had to give them tips on what else to do to achieve that dream body. Celebrities tend to overdo the exercise part and underdo the nourishment. I tell them to rest more; sleep is often overlooked. If you're not sleeping, it negates all the benefits of exercise." Dieting, in any case, is a bad word, and looking only to lose weight is never going to achieve long-term results unless your mind is equally committed to a healthy lifestyle. Diweker, who has seen clients come to her bedridden from not eating anything except chewing gum and coffee.

"Keep your stomach half-full and half-empty, because if you're too hungry or full your brain won't work as well. Too full and you feel dull and sleepy. To find that balance you need to re-establish that connection with your stomach that has been lost." For Diweker, trekking in the Himalayas, a lifelong passion is where she reconnects with herself. "The Himalayas have a lot to contribute. When I lived in an ashram for an entire month was when things started changing. When you're in the Himalayas your senses feel at peace.

"You need much more food because you're walking and you're eating without obsessing over it. You stop fussing. If we started doing that in our daily lives, we'd find it easier to lose weight because we're no longer obsessing.